Rosin up that bow, maestro: And thank your genes

June 26, 2014, Michigan State University
A study led by Zach Hambrick, Michigan State University professor of psychology, suggests genes play a significant role in developing musical expertise. Credit: Michigan State University

Mom or dad may have driven you to cello rehearsal all those years, but you can also thank your genes for pushing you to practice, according to new research led by a Michigan State University professor.

Genetics and environment work together to help people become accomplished musicians, finds the study of 850 sets of twins. It's another arrow in the quiver of the argument that both nature and nurture play a role in developing expertise.

"The nature vs. nurture debate has raged since the beginning of psychology," said Zach Hambrick, MSU professor of psychology. "This makes it very clear that it's both. Not only in the sense that both nature and nurture contribute, but that they interact with each other."

The study breaks new ground in ascertaining the specific roles of . Essentially, it found:

  • Accomplished musicians practiced much more than those who weren't accomplished.
  • That propensity to practice was fueled partly by genetics, which the researchers were able to establish by comparing , who share 100 percent of their genes, with fraternal twins, who share 50 percent of their genes. The finding suggests genetics influence the sorts of activities we pursue.
  • When it came to music accomplishment, genes had a bigger influence on those who practiced than those who didn't.

Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell argue that experts are almost entirely "made" and that a lack of innate ability can be overcome with enough training. The way to master that cello, in other words, is to practice for at least 10,000 hours, as past research has suggested.

But the new study challenges that theory by showing genes had a major contribution on the musicians who practiced and became successful. For those who didn't practice, there was essentially no genetic contribution.

"Contrary to the view that genetic effects go away as you practice more and more," Hambrick said, "we found that genes become more important in accounting for differences across people in music performance as they practice."

The study appears online in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Explore further: Practice makes perfect? Not so much

Related Stories

Practice makes perfect? Not so much

May 20, 2013
Turns out, that old "practice makes perfect" adage may be overblown. New research led by Michigan State University's Zach Hambrick finds that a copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level ...

Twins studies to identify the molecular cause of ageing

June 26, 2014
What makes us age biologically? We have always been intrigued by this question. Yet, it remains a fundamental research challenge. Now, the EU-funded project, EurHEALTHAgeing, aims to draw together studies of early development ...

Differences in educational achievement owe more to genetics than environment

December 11, 2013
The degree to which students' exam scores differ owes more to their genes than to their teachers, schools or family environments, according to new research from King's College London published today in PLOS ONE.

Why parenting can never have a rule book

September 3, 2013
Any parent will tell you that there is no simple recipe for raising a child. Being a parent means getting hefty doses of advice – often unsolicited – from others. But such advice often fails to consider a critical factor: ...

Genes make for a life of success

May 16, 2012
Genes play a greater role in forming character traits than was previously thought, new research suggests.

Recommended for you

Peers' genes may help friends stay in school, new study finds

January 18, 2018
While there's scientific evidence to suggest that your genes have something to do with how far you'll go in school, new research by a team from Stanford and elsewhere says the DNA of your classmates also plays a role.

Two new breast cancer genes emerge from Lynch syndrome gene study

January 18, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian have identified two new breast cancer genes. Having one of the genes—MSH6 and PMS2—approximately doubles a woman's risk of developing breast ...

A centuries-old math equation used to solve a modern-day genetics challenge

January 18, 2018
Researchers developed a new mathematical tool to validate and improve methods used by medical professionals to interpret results from clinical genetic tests. The work was published this month in Genetics in Medicine.

Can mice really mirror humans when it comes to cancer?

January 18, 2018
A new Michigan State University study is helping to answer a pressing question among scientists of just how close mice are to people when it comes to researching cancer.

Group recreates DNA of man who died in 1827 despite having no body to work with

January 16, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a group with deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, has partly recreated the DNA of a man who died in 1827, despite having no body to take tissue samples from. ...

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
not rated yet Jun 26, 2014
This repeats the common mistake of assuming that you *will* get better if you practice and practice and practice...

Based on the violin I reluctantly tortured at school, the more practice I did, the worse I got.

That was hardly surprising, because I'm mildly tone-deaf. I could not distinguish a perfect note from a midnight cat-fight. Sadly, my school refused to accept such as a bar to musical excellence. In their view, too, APPLICATION was EVERYTHING.

Ironically, I later learned a lot of music theory and used a MIDI sequencer to provide other family members with backing tracks...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.